Rutgers Suicide Case to Test NJ Privacy Law

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By Laura Strachan, Esq. on November 09, 2010 8:48 AM

How a tragic suicide case has turned into an investigation into New Jersey privacy laws is a new exploration into the legal landscape of social media. Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after he found out his college roommate had been using a webcam (and Twitter) to spy on him during intimate moments with another man. Clementi ultimately jumped from The George Washington Bridge, leaving a suicide note on his Facebook account.

Tyler Clementi's death will now mark the first time New Jersey privacy laws, which were enacted in 2003, will be tested in a courtroom, according to the New York Times. More than just suicide, his death has served to bolster campaigns against cyber bullying, hate crimes, and gay teens. Clementi's former roommate (Dhuran Ravi) and a high school friend (Molly Wei) will both stand trial for their actions.

The primary inquiry in the case, as it relates to privacy, will be the extent to which streaming videos of Clementi on the web was an invasion of his privacy. In order to determine this, the nature of the footage, the number of viewers, and what exactly constitutes privacy will be dissected. Tough questions when it comes to emerging media and laws that have never been applied to a case before.

Under the law, a conviction for third degree invasion of privacy would require a recording and viewing of sexual conduct. The charge would carry five years in prison, if convicted. The Times quotes New York gay rights activist Bill Dobbs, "There's value in the social discussion that has come out of the case. The bigger conversations are very important because that's part of efforts to get at the truth."

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